Social Conscience or Too Scary for Kids?

by Wendy Sachs


My kids are now eight and six years old, which means they are still plenty self absorbed to believe that they are king and queen of the castle, but old enough at least I think, to start having some construct of a social conscience and a more accurate sense of the world.


I still have them believing in the Tooth Fairy – at least they pretend to so they can get compensated by the cash carrying Angel of Baby Teeth. And even though we don’t celebrate Christmas, my kids seem to still trust that there is a Santa and a gaggle of reindeer who fly on a pimped out sleigh dropping presents down a chimney. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the buzz kill type who exposes Santa as an overweight, over commercialized fraud. But as my children get a little older I’ve become more intent on grounding them and keeping it real.


Ever since my first toddler shrieked “Mine!” followed by, “I want that!” I’ve been desperate to figure out how to raise un-bratty, kind hearted kids with a social conscience. And every time we walk into a Target and my son Jonah wants a new Tech Deck to add to his massive collection and my daughter Lexi wants another Sharpay doll, I announce to my husband that it’s time to take our kids to visit a soup kitchen.


“When are they old enough to ladle?” I’ve asked the Mitzvah team members at my synagogue who help out at local soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Apparently, six and eight years old are too young to volunteer.


Maybe it’s the Obama effect or maybe it’s just a raised national social conscience, but community service and charitable giving has definitely trickled down even into the first grade and I am grateful for the backup. During the next few weeks, kids at our elementary school are encouraged to turn in their gently used coats and write notes to the new owners. The note is supposed to be placed into the coat’s pocket. This year the coat drive has become personal, not just theoretical.


It’s interesting and heartening to see Jonah becoming increasingly curious about the news. He wanted to know what happened in Fort Hood. And he recently talked about 9/11 and the planes that took down the World Trade Center. Jonah speculated that 9/11 could never happen again because “they must be making stronger buildings now.”


I struggle with how to talk to my kids about horrific events like 9/11, the Fort Hood shootings and the bleak, inescapable realities of life. I’ve tried to explain about selfish, greedy people like Bernie Madoff and I’ve talked about parents being out of work and the hardships created by the recession. And I use my children’s books to hammer home important life lessons. Last night we finished reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” which is a brilliant example of the hazards that befall overstuffed and overindulged kids.


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This is a great post. I think getting kids engaged in the community through volunteering will help to teach them empathy. (Which really is something that needs to be learned through experience.)


It's wonderful to see all the postings here! I have had my kids picking up trash at our local beaches from the time they were 2 years old (& then we jump in the ocean and play!). We do lots of more organized environmental volunteering but also pick up trash every time we go to the beach, which is several times a week. We wear latex gloves and I don't let my younger one pick up "questionable items" (I have picked up mini pads, condoms- you name it- from the sand!) and oftentimes she just acts like a trash detector by beeping and pointing at items for me to pick up. It seems many parents get involved once a year at some event with lots of hype and door prizes. While this still has value, I want my kids to realize that there is intrinsic value in living in a beautiful place and knowing that you are acting as a steward for the community. We adopt families for the holidays, do the heifer project thing through their school, carry small cereal boxes to give to homeless people (I tell my kids why I opt not to give money, etc, etc). This is part of our day-to-day. I want my kids to realize that we are so, so fortunate and that they have a responsibility to share where they can- which is usually with hard work and hands-on rather than writing someone a check. It makes things very personal for them and I think they have a sense of empowerment because they are taking action to make things better. I love the idea of the notes with the coats. It's easy for a kid to give up a too small coat that they didn't pay for anyway... to write a meaningful note to the new owner is just beautiful!


I find it very interesting your kids can't volunteer at age 6; we have kids age 5 & up helping in our local food pantry.
I do think kids need some exposure, and I think exposing them earlier is less likely to scare them. I pity the children in the large house down the street whose mother laments the presence of the homeless in the area because "she doesn't want her kids to know about poverty." I can't help but think that is a sad way to raise a child.


Great conversation. We have faced the same issues raising our kids and trying to teach them appreciation for the things they have and how important it is to share their good fortune with others. We have had open houses during the holidays to collect food for a local church among other things. Our family has also started a new business to capture the spirit of giving to others through birthday parties.
It's been great to see how excited children are to be helping others.


Our children pooled their money this Christmas to buy something for a family in Asia through a Christian Charity that we support. When the "catalog" came this fall, without any prompting from us they were talking among themselves trying to decide what to get. As parents, it did our hearts good.


I've become passionate that more American kids need to be exposed to the facts. Most of the kids in the world are in have no bed to sleep in and go to bed hungry every day. Our 5 year old son decided to have his friends donate money to a Kenyan children's organization instead of bringing him gifts. I didn't force the choice - I just told him our friend (an AIDS orphan we sponsor) and her friends don't really have toys and the conversation evolved into what he could do to help.

We are blessed to live in one of the wealthiest counties in America. We often give birthday presents of a flock of chicks or ducklings from and we include the flyer about what that present means to an entire community. Our 3 yr old agonizes over what "present" to choose from the online catalog. Both kids and parents come back to us with comments and gratitude about those gifts (most parents say they are going to give the same present, too). It's cool to see how the cycle of awareness, kindness, and action can evolve - and even small kids really want to help others.

Finally, Project Night Night is a gentle, kid-friendly way to help support children in homeless shelters, especially in major metro areas.


A friend of mine and her family help at a free Thanksgiving dinner every year. It means a lot to all of them. Am hoping to find something similar this year for my own family. I think keeping things simple and action-oriented will speak louder than words.


I think it sounds like you have the ultimate balance. Giving your kids things they want and reminding them how blessed they are at the same time.


I love your passion for wanting to raise children with a more developed social conscious. While taking them along to the local soup kitchen may be a little scary, I agree the concept of leaving a note in the coat pocket and passing these on is a great way to start teaching our children the most important values in life.


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